The quotation appended to Rick Cole’s emails is from St. Francis of Assisi: “Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” It’s practically a manual for the man who became Mayor Eric Garcetti’s deputy mayor for budget and innovation two years ago. For 30 years, Cole has been trying to graft the impossible to the necessary as council member and mayor in Pasadena, and city manager in Azusa and Ventura. Now he’s about to resume the city manager role, this time in Santa Monica. How does Los Angeles look in his rear-view mirror?
You began as a firebrand Pasadena councilman; now you’re more, shall we say, deliberate.
I like to call myself a Zen Catholic. I am impatient for change but patient with the pace of change. I have to be in it for the long haul. It’s always frustrated me that our politics and media coverage are so shallow and short term; the things that matter in people’s lives take longer than the news cycle and the election cycle. Change is imperative in a changing world, but sometimes, in the public sector, it comes at all deliberate speed.
City government is built with speed bumps; is that salutary?
On balance, no, but you have to respect the reason. A lot of checks and balances are built into the system to avoid corruption and half-baked ideas, but Southern California’s governance mechanisms have clearly fallen behind the times. Ironically, most were designed by reformers. The people who wrote the city charter and the recall, referendum and initiative process were petrified of abuse of power. The charter was designed to prevent corruption, not to enable effectiveness. They took effective government for granted.
So when you ask questions like “Who’s responsible for the miserable state of L.A. streets?,” you can blame anyone because almost anybody has a piece of the problem and almost no one has the power to fix it. To avoid one problem, we so diffused power and hamstrung accountability, it’s no wonder we have the results we all complain about.
Is the city manager form of government preferable to a full-fledged council and mayor system like L.A.'s?
It works better in peripheral cities. What makes more sense for Los Angeles is to have a chief operating officer and chief financial officer appointed by the mayor, neither of which exists [now].
Angelenos wonder why their priorities for city government don’t seem to be the priorities of people who run the government.
We obsess about voter turnout. That’s the least salient indicator of engagement. Elections are important, but they only happen every two or four years, and government happens every day. Elections don’t talk about the things that are important to voters; they’re about manipulation of emotions and not problem-solving. Mayor Garcetti is a remarkable exception to this because [of his agenda:] back to basics. When government can’t answer the phones, fix the streets, then to talk about ending poverty and [other] moonshot priorities lacks credibility. But put basic things in place and great things can be achieved.
Isn’t this mayor trying to do both?
He’s clearly trying to do both. We are making progress on the basics. When he took office, the finance department was only answering phone calls 51% of the time in the month before the deadline for business taxes; 49% of calls were going to voicemail and it was taking two weeks to return them. This year they answer calls with a person 85% of the time and people who left messages were getting an answer in one day. That’s not going to run on the front page of the paper, but the chronic failure inevitably shows up on the front page.
What perils do you see ahead for L.A.?
I would say we don’t need any more people appointed as watchdogs. We need more people equipped to make change. [That takes] money, and Los Angeles is strapped. The second is political will. The third is simply bandwidth; most of the people in city government are up to their eyeballs in keeping the place running. Since we don’t have money and since political will is hard to capture, the most effective things [to do] are long-term systemic change [and] to move beyond the crisis management of the economic crisis and toward really building the future.
The standard anti-government mantra is “waste, fraud and abuse.” What’s your rejoinder?
Someone asked me my favorite theologian. I said St. Francis because he said to the monks, “Go and preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.” The waste, fraud and abuse trope is not one you can rhetorically respond to. We have to be very practical and demonstrate that we’re willing to go the extra mile.
How did you get into this line of work?
I was a junior and the Pasadena school board was going to close my high school. I went down to criticize that move. One of the board members called me an “impudent young punk.” Ramon Cortines [then working in the Pasadena school district] chased me in the hall. I thought he was going to expel me, but he said, “I don’t have to agree with what you say but you have every right to say it, and they need to listen to you because you’re the voice of the future.” They didn’t close the high school.
Why is Los Angeles so far behind in civic technology?
The mayor’s acknowledged as the most tech-savvy big-city mayor in America, but he jokes that that’s like being the tallest building in Canoga Park. We start from a deep hole. Decisions had to be made during the financial crisis about what to heave overboard to balance the budget, and technology and training were the first things. In retrospect those would have been valuable investments, but that’s easy to judge in hindsight. Now we have the opportunity to address what didn’t get addressed during the crisis.
The city had 70 or 80 different stand-alone websites: police, fire, airport, the Ethics Commission. [Chief innovation officer] Peter Marx put a frame around all of those so [that] on any of the websites, at the top is a common navigation bar, so if you land on Building and Safety, you can find your way to the zoo or library [sites]. It was very cheap, but mostly it was an act of will because the situation had been allowed to develop and it took the initiative of the mayor’s office to change it.
With so much to do, why leave now?
It was an incredibly hard choice. The most important deciding factors were, when you’re city manager, you have the entire sweep of tools at your disposal. You oversee the fire department, police department, planning, public works. As appreciative as I am of the mayor’s support, I personally am better at a smaller scale, where I can have a direct relationship with the front lines.
You’re going to Santa Monica — one of 88 cities in L.A. County. How can they all coordinate to make the region work?
First is the recognition that Los Angeles is not competing with Glendale, and Glendale is not competing with Burbank. Southern California is competing with Tokyo, Singapore and Shanghai. As an example, at the moment we’re struggling with bike-share vendors. Santa Monica was determined to move forward when Metro was slow on the uptake, and now Metro is saying, “You need to play with us because we’re a much bigger system.” We have to solve that so a person in Venice can ride all the way to Malibu.
For me, the test is Valley Forge. A third of Washington’s troops were without shoes. As best I can tell, everybody who works for L.A. and Santa Monica has shoes. If Washington could beat the largest empire in the world with his Continentals, we can overcome the challenges we face.
What will you miss about City Hall?
The people. Because the systems are so terrible, the only way L.A. has been able to work through this crisis is the heroic effort by people who deeply care and didn’t have to; with civil service protections, it’s not easy to get fired. I’ll miss the people who strive to deliver despite all the obstacles.
Why was “controversial” so often appended to your name?
I care passionately, and sometimes my passion causes me to be, as you say, controversial. Sometimes I had to struggle with my own impatience and willingness to push the envelope sometimes too far too fast. But the ideas I talked about in Pasadena 25 years ago are not controversial anymore: to build cities around people instead of around cars, to include everyone in our society and not make artificial distinctions on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation and immigration status.
What frustrates you about L.A.?
I hate the fact that the public realm is beyond filthy, so I pick up trash on the way to and from City Hall. How Sisyphean, right? But if everybody did it, it’d be clean, and people would be ashamed to throw trash. The third Los Angeles that [Times’ architecture critic] Christopher Hawthorne talks about is not going to be created at City Hall, and it’s not going to be created by holding seminars about it. It’s going to be created by people who live it.
What do you love about L.A.?
At Occidental College, I had a debate with a friend who had grown up in Denver and was appalled by Los Angeles; he accused me of not knowing anything about L.A. because I’d grown up in Pasadena. We spent Christmas vacation of my senior year on the bus, going to ordinary neighborhoods to understand this complicated and dynamic city. At the end [my friend] said he would never live in a city like L.A., and I said I will never leave. This is the most interesting place on the planet and will be for the foreseeable future.
This interview has been condensed and edited. firstname.lastname@example.org